What if you lived in a society where speaking is a threat to the social order?
Octavia Butler speculated on the aforementioned question in her Hugo Award-winning short story, Speech Sounds. I came across this story when it was discussed on the Novel Pairing Podcast. The discussion was interesting, and I had to read the story for myself.
The story takes place in a post-pandemic Los Angeles and a woman named Rye is on the city bus heading home. A fight breaks out, causing commotion and panic amongst the passengers. Few moments later, a mysterious man in a car (which is rare in the story’s world) gets out to stop the fight. He shows a LAPD badge (the police are non-existent in this world) and uses tear gas to end the fight. The mysterious man connects with Rye and offers to take her home. She agrees to the offer and leaves with him.
They have only communicated by facial and hand gestures. The two make an instant connection and it leads to amorous encounter. After being together, they noticed a man getting ready to attack a woman on a street corner. The mysterious man known as Obisidan stops the car to save the woman from her attacker. The story takes a dark turn and Rye is left with the aftermath.
Butler provides some thought-provoking ideas in the story. Those who can speak are special and have a higher social status. Speaking provokes jealousy from those who can not speak and creates a division that can lead to violence. On the surface, Speech Sounds comes across as a bleak story, but Butler provides hope by the end of it when Rye interacts with two children after the attack on the woman at the street corner.
The story makes me realize how much we can take speaking for granted. Also, the society treats reading only for the privileged. That hits home for me as one who loves stories. Reading needs to be for everyone and never for a select group of people.
I’m not a big short story reader but Octavia Butler is one of my favorite authors and her stark prose is prescient. Speech Sounds is in her Bloodchild and Other Stories collection. I highly recommend this story and she says a lot within twenty pages.